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The Games Of Christmas '11: Day 17

After the great boredom

What's for dessert? Probably some kind of pudding that we cobbled together from elements gathered while we were out exploring. It's lucky people left all this stuff laying about or we'd never satisfy this raging hunger...

It's... Rage!

Alec: It's not been the best year for straight-up action games, but at the same time we've been unusually spoilt for choice with (quasi)open world games, which left Rage in a bit of a funny place. I think I was fortunate to go into id's latest already expecting it to be a constrained experience, so I treated it as a traditional shooter with a little more room to roam in between levels rather than some glossy Stalker heir-apparent. And lo, the shooting of the men was most enjoyable. As was the purchasing of the ammunition and upgrades, and the hunting bandit buggies for cash prizes.

Despite all the guns and mutants, there's something pleasantly offbeat about Rage. It doesn't grab me by the thin shoulders and shout nonsense about war and loyalty and glory and the god-damn dirty foreigns coming over here and stealing our democracy in my face and it doesn't make me spend most of the time with an NPC's buttocks obscuring half the screen. It offers me some rooms and corridors full of guys to shoot and things to pick up, waves its hand casually at the whole scene then leaves me to it.

I particularly dig the hub towns in Rage - sure, no-one goes anywhere, but the attention to detail and the earthy there-ness of the characters makes me enjoy my time wandering (alright, sprinting) around shopping, mission-grabbing and upgrading. The artists have had a field day in Wellspring and Subway Town, which makes it doubly a shame that Rage's PC version seemed so compromised on a technical level. (Those textures! Ugh.) Characters look and sound distinct, rather than the mild variations on a bland theme in Skyrim or even DHXR's non-plot-critical cast.

It is a shame id didn't come up with a strong, complete story for its desert argy-bargy. The revolution didn't have much urgency, the Authority were faceless generics and the narrative wound up with whimper. But I'm not sure I care about FPS plots anymore - it's all about the setting for me. And the setting I felt Rage nailed - then placed a pick'n'choose playground of action distractions in it. It's throwaway, relaxed merriment, and I absolutely believe it should be so.

(Sadly, Rage can't really be mentioned without bringing up the the launch-day technical problems were inexcusable, and blaming graphics card companies for it was poor, poor form. As is the lack of significant patching or updates since release week: the game has clearly been abandoned.)

Jim: I suspect this is going to be one of our more controversial choices, but, despite the rants that spilled from my fingers, I can't get away from the fun I had with it. The shooting is quite good. There's been better shooting this year - Bulletstorm, Serious Sam 3 - but the feel and general playfulness of Rage was exactly what I was looking for when it came along. Remote control bombs, spider bots, shotgun rounds that were actually rockets - it kept me entertained. And visually it was just right. I loved the hub towns with their silly post-apocalyptic characters, and I revelled in the racing and super-violent dungeon-crawling. It was just the right side of simplicity, and just the right level of apocalyptic beauty (if it ran on your PC, anyway) to satisfying my need to wander in bleak futures.

In fact in places it was exactly what I needed. The Dead City was a high point. I would say for approximately the first two thirds of the game it was heading into precisely the sort of territory I like to see games explore: vehicular combat, tight gun action, crafting with random junk in your inventory. All good stuff. The nosedive that thing took in the last third was disappointing, and three-pronged: it made enemies have more hit-points, rather than having more tactics to use against you, the story ended with a bizarre fizzle of a non-event, but more importantly of all, it failed to build on the interesting stuff it had created. The hubs never quite blossomed, the world was never quite a canvas for exploration, your motor-action was never really anything more than a sub-game between shooting galleries. As such I think Rage is the most interesting (and most satisfying) failure of 2011.

Adam: In the bubble that I live in, it’s hard to tell how many people actually liked Rage. I know people who held off due to the launch problems and still seem to be holding, eventually unconvinced by what they’d seen and read. The general air that hangs around the game is one of disappointment. True enough, it’s probably the most flawed game I’ve played to completion this year – I never finished Dead Island which is lumbering at its heels – but most of the flaws form where things seem to be missing rather than where they are broken.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that it’s easy to dismiss the game for being this Rage instead of another, imagined Rage. That’s not to say the problem is entirely one built around preconceived notions, because even someone going into the game blind would be likely to butt their head against every wall and outcrop of rock in an attempt to see more of the scorched earth stretching in every direction.

Then they give you a bloody buggy to bounce around the place in. All-terrain tires and suspension – check! A tank full of petrol – check! A smidgeon of speed – check check check! Rev the engine and head for the horizon, skipping and scraping through craters and the bleached bone of the desert. Except, no.

Vehicles are for driving between very particular places on tracks that, despite first appearances, are clearly delineated. Just as most missions take place in what are essentially broader corridors than those of old, with walls and ceilings less obvious.

But in those tracks and corridors, and the hubs that give the world so much of its character, there are enemies that squirm and crumple in just the right way when you fire both barrels into their chest. There are a hundred bits and pieces to collect, and sights to discover, all the detritus and decor of a scrapyard future.

The guns pack a real wallop, which shouldn’t need pointing out, but it’s remarkable how often, elsewhere, there is too little sense of impact. Even Serious Sam 3 suffers at times from enemies that show no reaction, other than producing the requisite bucket of blood, when shot at point blank range. That’s because Sam lives in a fairground – with his sledgehammer at the game’s beginning, he’s playing whack-a-mole and later he sidles up to the shooting galleries. Rage, for all of its boundaries, is id’s strongest attempt at world-building and give us an interesting world and we'll naturally want to explore it. But at its heart, Rage is still a shooter.

It’s a shooter that sometimes looks like it’s mutating into something else. It’s also, despite attempts to write it off as generic, visually distinct from the other shooters out there, which is something we so often ask for. Now that its mistakes are so well documented, the New Year might be a perfect time to indulge for those who held off. It's a game with a bit of driving, a bit of talking and a lot of shooting. Sadly, it doesn’t quite succeed at being that for its entire length, but when it does, it’s a damn fun ride.

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